AKA: The Blood Bond
Director: Michael Biehn, Bey Logan
Producer: Bey Logan, Eli Scher, Seth Scher
Cast: Michael Biehn, Simon Yam, Phoenix Chou, Emma Pei, Jennifer Blanc, Xiao Keng Ye, Thomas Ho, Kenny Lo, Ridwan Amir, Michael Wong Mun-Tak
Running Time: 86 min.
By Paul Bramhall
With the dawn of the DVD era, Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan quickly became known for his informative and knowledgeable audio commentaries, recorded for the Hong Kong Legends and Dragon Dynasty DVD labels. What he was less well known for was for his movie output, which consisted of being involved in misguided productions like Jackie Chan low point The Medallion, or just plain bad movies like Dragon Squad (aka Dragon Heat). In an interview shortly after leaving Dragon Dynasty, Bey admitted to his shortcomings, and revealed he was going to be concentrating on his production company. His plan was to put behind him the misfires of the past, and focus on making some solid HK action movies. ShadowGuard was to be the first.
Taking a plot which is essentially identical to the 1991 Wong Jing movie The Last Blood, ShadowGuard sees a holy man, modeled after the Dalai Lama, visiting a South East Asian country in the grip of a civil war called Purma (because it would probably be too offensive to actually call it Burma I guess). Just like in The Last Blood the man is mortally wounded and needs a blood transfusion, but his rare blood type means there’s only a very small number of potential candidates in the country. One such candidate is washed up Special Forces guy Michael Biehn, yes as in Kyle Reese from The Terminator and Dwayne Hicks from Aliens, so the bodyguard of his holiness, played by newcomer Phoenix Valen, decides to track him down and convince him to donate.
It’s worth noting that the movie has an interesting back-story. Having worked with Biehn previously on Danny Lee’s 2005 atrocity Dragon Squad, Bey called Biehn to play the part of the washed up Special Forces guy, hoping he’d take the role. Not only did he take it, but Bey was so impressed with Biehn’s enthusiasm, that he offered him his first opportunity at sitting in the director’s chair. Biehn accepted, however once he got on set in China, things turned out to be not quite how he’d expected. Biehn still says he hasn’t seen the final version, and in an interview shortly after it was released, he described the experience of working on ShadowGuard.
Working with an inexperienced crew that didn’t speak much English, he explained how he had to do almost everything himself, right down to painting the walls of newly built sets. ShadowGuard was so under funded that crew members were often asked to play characters in front of camera, despite it being an English language movie and them not being able to speak a lick of it (in one scene a character amusingly yells at Biehn, “Son of the bitch!”). In the end, perhaps sensing his frustration, Bey told Biehn not to worry about post-production and that he’d take care of everything. So ultimately, once filming was complete Bey took over, from editing it together to mixing the sound, and once the negative reviews came rolling in, Biehn spoke up and said he disowns the movie as his directorial debut.
Amusingly it seems Bey wasn’t too happy with it either, as he went on to write a novel of what he described the movie was meant to be, entitled The Blood Bond. The original title for the movie was in fact supposed to be ShadowGuard: The Blood Bond, the idea being that it would become an action franchise for lead actress Phoenix Valen, but perhaps sensing it never going to happen, it was finally released as just ShadowGuard.
So, does the final product reflect all the problems that came about in the process of making it? The blunt answer is, yes. However there is entertainment to be had from ShadowGuard, although it comes with the warning that it’s strictly of the so bad it’s good variety. Phoenix Valen can’t act, this fact is inarguable, delivering every one of her lines in the same monotone lifeless manner from beginning to end. The editing doesn’t help either. In one scene she checks on the holy man to see if he needs anything before going to sleep for the night. When he says all is ok, they exchange glances at each other, but instead of showing how close they are it makes the scene disturbingly creepy, as he lingeringly grins at her in the doorway from his bed.
What’s even more amusing though, is the intensity of Biehn’s acting. The poor guy is obviously putting his heart and soul into the role, despite his lines being atrocious (he’s partly to blame for that, being a co-writer of the script). In his many scenes with Valen, the composition of her lifeless line delivery next to his wide eyed yelling is frequently hilarious. It should also be noted that as he wasn’t involved in post production, if any of his lines weren’t adequately recorded on location, he’s been over dubbed by someone who doesn’t sound anything like him, giving things a slightly mid-2000’s Seagal feel.
Essentially for no other reason than being friends with Bey, Simon Yam shows up as the head of the military trying to off the holy man. His scenes either consist of him hamming it up in a way in which I’m sure he must have been self aware, compared to others in which he simply looks bored. The final moments of his fight with Biehn in the climax are a worthy highpoint of unintended entertainment. Also calling on the friendship card, Michael Wong shows up as a helicopter pilot (in what I presume is most likely his own helicopter, which is probably why Bey called him) for less than a minute, but he does dub his own lines which I guess is a plus, all three of them.
The action was choreographed by Fan Siu Wong, who must be having a difficult time finding work to be reduced to working on a production like this. Surprisingly, some of it is quite entertaining. The shootouts are awful, especially the finale which sees a corridor shootout in a hospital a la Hard Boiled, only with CGI bullet damage and completely lifeless execution. However to his credit, he does a half decent job of making Valen’s empty handed fight scenes passable. Using Tai Chi, there’s clearly no power in her blows, and she wears an expression which belies that of the character she’s playing, all too obviously showing her concentration on remembering the moves. Strip all that away though, and the choreography is competently executed, and it’s nice to see Tai Chi being used effectively against opponents, a style which is rarely used in screen fighting.
ShadowGuard barely scrapes in at just over 80 minutes, meaning it never becomes truly painful to watch, at least not in a way which has you reaching for the stop button. It’s bad, but it’s passably bad thanks to the complete incompetence of almost every aspect of it, which somehow translates to some morbid form of being watchable.
Special mention goes to the Hong Kong Blu-ray, one of the few territories that it actually got a release, which comes with four equally cringe worthy cast interviews. Two have Bey interviewing Phoenix and Biehn respectively, and are interesting because in the interview with Phoenix she seems stoned, and in the interview with Biehn he’s clearly in the process of giving up hope. The other two are with Simon Yam and Bey himself, both conducted by an interviewer who seems to struggle to think of questions to ask. Bey rather awkwardly explains how he met Phoenix in a nightclub, and after a movie she was working on fell through, invited her to stay with him in his apartment. He then goes to some lengths to justify that it was ok as their relationship is entirely platonic. It’s all quite creepy, and had it been a UK or US DVD, I’m sure this part of the interview would have been cut. For the fact that it wasn’t, I’m going to give the overall score an extra point.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4/10